An eclectic alphabet of chicken facts with a difference. Compiler: Andy Cawthray
‘P’ for pests
Rats can be a year-round issue, though winter sees them struggling for food and shelter, so they can seek out a cosy chicken run until the weather improves. Having rats move in is not a sign of poor husbandry, but it is poor husbandry not to deal with the problem. Rats need three things: food, water and shelter; remove at least one of these requirements and there’s a good chance of removing the problem. Don’t leave feeders outside; either bring them indoors or put them inside the chicken coop at night. Empty the drinkers each night, and refill in the morning. Finally, raise the coop off the ground, if possible by at least 15-20cm, to remove the shelter option (this has the bonus of providing outdoor shelter for your chickens).
Crows are very intelligent birds and they are not afraid to enter a chicken coop and help themselves to the food and eggs inside. A simple way to stop this is to place a screen over the door of the pophole or entrance to the nest box. The chickens will appreciate the additional darkness and privacy when they are laying; the crows, on the other hand, will be unlikely to enter. Cats and dogs can be a concern to a chicken keeper, and it is always worth familiarising your other pets with your chickens where possible. Cats will invariabley leave fullgrown large fowl alone, though bantams and young growers can be at risk from being attacked and killed. Some dog breeds mix very well with chickens such as collies, and both species will happily co-exist, but some breeds of dog are a risk, such as terriers. The chicken keeper will need to train the dog, though any dog that expresses an unhealthy interest in a flock of chickens should never be left alone with them.
If you do not have a dog, but have visitors who bring their
pet along and proclaim ‘he’ll be fine around the chickens, he’s not bothered by them’, politely point out that he might not be bothered by the chickens but the chickens will be bothered by him. If they are not familiar with dogs, most chickens are intelligent enough to view them as a predator threat.
The red mite is a pest of the summer months, and, while it may not be active during winter weather, be sure to still clean the coop thoroughly. The mite feeds by sucking the blood from the chickens as they roost at night and their ability to increase their numbers rapidly can mean that the quantity of blood taken from a bird overnight can result in anaemia and even death. It can survive over six months without feeding, and, while a really harsh winter may kill off adult mites, the eggs they laid late in the summer will live on ready to hatch at the first signs of warm weather.
A simple method of checking for red mite within a coop is to place a bunch of drinking straws at floor level in the corner. Every week remove the straws and blow through them into an empty jar. If mites are present in the house they will probably have taken shelter in the drinking straws and will be seen crawling around in the bottom of the jar.
An alternative is to place a piece of corrugated card again at floor level, with the corrugate side face down. In a similar manner to with the drinking straws, if red mite is present it will take up residence in the cavities of the cardboard.
NORTHERN FOWL MITE
A chicken with a sunken stance, along with a greasy appearance to the feathers, suggests a possible northern fowl mite (Ornithonys-sus sylviarum) infestation. Picking up the chicken and parting the feathers at the base of the tail will usually show the mite crawling over the skin. Beware - it will also crawl on to the hand of the keeper, seeking it as a potential host.
These mites become far more active during winter, as they prefer cooler climates. Once they find a suitable host bird they will multiply at an alarming rate. Like the summer pest red mite, these are blood suckers, but, unlike red mite, these mites complete their entire lifecycle on the birds, and are far more aggressive, feeding around the clock. The greasy look of the feathers is caused by their faecal deposits. The speed at which they reproduce, coupled with their feeding habit means they are capable of killing a bird within a matter of days if the infestation isn’t dealt with.
A parasite-induced illness that can be debilitating and fatal often referred to as ‘Cocci’. Young growing stock will be exposed to the parasite (coccidia) at some point their lives, and they will usually develop immunity, either because the exposure is low level, or because they have survived the resulting illness.
Artificially reared birds can be particularly at risk of contracting the condition when they are first put outdoors. The outward signs of the disease are a hunched, fluffed up bird with drooped wings; it can also present itself as blood in the droppings of the bird, although this doesn’t always occur. The condition can be confirmed by having a vet test faecal samples, though a rapid response to tackling the problem is required as it can very quickly spread throughout the whole flock, as the infected droppings come into contact with uninfected birds. Keeping ground litter dry and clean can help prevent its occurrence, but cleaning with a suitable parasitic cleanser and oral medication will be required in the event of an outbreak. Speed is of the essence when there is a coccidiosis outbreak.
Chickens are no different than most other creatures on the planet in that there are parasitic worms that have evolved to exploit them. The two groups that are significant to chickens are the flatworms (cestodes and trematodes) and the roundworms (nematodes). Both of these worms live within the chicken, feeding off their host, and reproducing whilst protected from the outside world. This can reduce the nutrient uptake of the chicken and disrupt its immune system by creating an additional burden. In most cases, chickens will develop a level of resistance to worm infection, though if the flock is kept on the same area of land the worm count can increase significantly, and the flock can become heavily infested. Regular, frequent worming can be performed using off-the-shelf poultry wormers if movement to fresh ground is limited. Additionally, a worming in the spring and again in the autumn is advisable in all cases, in order to reduce the risk of other diseases compromising the flock.
ABOVE: A brown rat TOP RIGHT: A carrion crow RIGHT: Mick snapped but no one got hurt
ABOVE: Red mite in the dust of a coop
BELOW LEFT: Short grass preferred